Jenny Tomasin: Actress best known for 'Upstairs, Downstairs'

 

The role of Ruby Finch, the dim-witted, put-upon scullery maid in Upstairs, Downstairs forever dreaming of running away with Rudolph Valentino, brought Jenny Tomasin fame worldwide. The familiar cry of "Oh, Ruby!" from the Bellamy household's cook, Mrs Bridges, in response to the accident-prone servant's clumsiness, was perhaps the closest the saga came to having a catchphrase.

Tomasin joined the programme for just one episode in its second series, in 1972, but her portrayal of the downtrodden Ruby was so admired that she was kept on until Upstairs, Downstairs ended three years later. She was seen "downstairs" alongside others including Angela Baddeley as the grumpy but warm-hearted Mrs Bridges, George Jackson as the dour butler Hudson, Jean Marsh as the pivotal housemaid Rose and Pauline Collins as the day-dreaming parlour maid Sarah in the drama set at 165 Eaton Place, London, against a background of events from the Edwardian era and First World War to the General Strike and Wall Street Crash. In typical fashion, Ruby once shocked her fellow servants by announcing that she was leaving for a job in a munitions factory, only for it to be blown up with her inside. She took the long walk back to Belgravia, her face blackened, and was reinstated.

The programme was Britain's most successful period drama of the 1970s, watched by 300 million people in 50 countries, including the US, where it won seven Emmys. When it ended, Tomasin felt a big hole had been left in her life and compared it to bereavement. Plans for Ruby to join Hudson and Mrs Bridges in a sequel, running a seaside boarding-house, were abandoned following Baddeley's death.

However, Ruby was a double-edged sword. The character was popular but frequently described as "TV's ugly duckling" and, Tomasin believed, left her typecast as maids, restricting her future career, while "upstairs" stars such as Simon Williams and Lesley-Anne Down saw their careers soar.

"I had to wear these drab outfits and no make-up," she recalled in the 2002 television documentary After Upstairs, Downstairs. "There was one particular incident when I was out with my boyfriend for a meal. I was feeling sexy and attractive, and suddenly somebody yelled out, 'Oh, look, there's Ruby!' I looked at my boyfriend and said, 'I don't want to stay here.' It just felt awful."

Born in Leeds in 1936, Tomasin had childhood ambitions to act or write. Despite her parents' objections, she broke into acting and appeared on stage until she made her screen début in 1972 as a Young Conservative whose parents try to marry her off to the fraudulent Australian of the title (Barry Crocker) in The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, a film written by Barry Humphries (who played Aunt Edna Everage) and the director Bruce Beresford.

Before she finished her run as Ruby, Tomasin took the carbon-copy role of a waitress, Florence Baker, in the motel-set soap opera Crossroads, which she played on and off from 1974-79. There were also one-off appearances in The Dick Emery Show (1976), The Onedin Line (1977) and the sitcom That's My Boy (1985), as well as the small part of Mrs Simmons in the little-seen film Mister Quilp (1975), based on The Old Curiosity Shop. Tomasin also acted one of the child mill workers in later episodes of Midnight is a Place (1977-78).

After she played Naomi Tolly, whose farmer father died in a tractor accident, in Emmerdale Farm (1980-81) and Tasambeker, "ex-ter-min-ated" by the Time Lord's nemeses in the 1985 Doctor Who story "Revelation of the Daleks", Tomasin's appearances became rarer. She took the role of a traffic warden in the 1990 film Just Ask for Diamond and was typecast as a maidservant in a BBC adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit (1994) and the cook in Beeban Kidron's television film of Cinderella (2000).

On stage and back to type, Tomasin played a parlour maid in a West End production of Man and Superman (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 1982), starring Peter O'Toole, with the cast reprising their performances in a television film version the same year. She was also in pantomimes and national tours of Blithe Spirit (1988-89), as Edith, the maid, Lettice and Lovage (1990-91) and The Marquise (2004), in which she acted Kate O'Mara's devoted maid.

Tomasin believed her television career might be experiencing a revival when she returned to Emmerdale (as the serial was retitled in 1989) in the role of Noreen Bell (2005-06), a cantankerous, palm-reading, wig-wearing pensioner whose garden fence was painted by Val Lambert as part of a community service order. Noreen became friends with Val but died in a gas explosion while looking round a show home.

It was Tomasin's last screen role, but the character's legacy lives on. The money bequeathed by Noreen to Val enabled her to buy a half-share in The Woolpack pub, where last orders are called with the Noreen Bell bell. However, Tomasin – who never married – always remained optimistic that more work would come along. As she said in 2002: "I've been through such hard times, but I can always bounce back again. I still believe great things are just ahead."

Anthony Hayward

Jenny Tomasin, actress: born Leeds 30 November 1936; died London c. 12 January 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Arts and Entertainment
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
film
Life and Style
tech
News
people
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Management Accountant

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Manag...

Recruitment Genius: Manufacturing Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a rare opportunity for ...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'